Tumult Continues in Bethesda
BETHESDA — The village voted Thursday to end its K-9 program and donate its police dog to the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office on the same night that the board accepted the resignations of two more police officers.
Meanwhile, the police department’s interim chief and its only remaining full-time officer — who was just hired in April — said they are trying to put the department back together with the hope of rebuilding the public’s trust.
Interim Police Chief Fred Thompson made the request to transfer the police dog, Frankie, to the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office. He said he believes the dog was an unnecessary expense that had never been used.
“I think this canine was purchased to be a dog-and-pony show,” said Thompson. “It was a publicity stunt. We don’t need the dog.”
Mayor Martin Lucas said the K-9 units at Barnesville and the sheriff’s office are willing to help when needed.
“If that dog bites somebody, I’m not sure we have enough liability coverage,” Lucas said.
“It’s not being used. It’s sitting in Bridgeport doing absolutely nothing.”
The dog’s handler is Bethesda Police Chief Eric Smith, who was suspended in April and is being investigated by the Ohio Attorney General’s office for allegations that he misused the state’s law enforcement data sharing system. Misuse of the system is a felony, the attorney general’s office has said.
The mayor said Belmont County Sheriff David Lucas has agreed to take Frankie.
“The sheriff has guaranteed that the dog will be used in our village as needed,” he said.
Meanwhile, two more full-time police officers have resigned from the Village of Bethesda Police Department. Both had served as resource officers for the Union Local School District.
Lucas announced Thursday the resignations of Francesca Y. Ceccanese and Kyler Hanlon. They join the roster of resignations of police, council members and the former solicitor who have left in the wake of an investigation of Smith.
Lucas said the village’s contract with the school district ends with the school year. He said the village would determine at a later date if it intends to pursue renewing the contract with the school district.
Mike Menges, safety director at the school district, said Thursday night that the district had hired retired state highway patrolman Jason Greenwood as its safety officer coordinator. However, he also said he could not comment on the status of the district’s contract with the village of Bethesda. He said Bethesda police officers are still in Union Local buildings.
After the most recent resignations, the police force has one full-time patrolman, Pete Busack; Fred Thompson, who is serving as interim chief in an administrative-only role; and four part-time officers.
Lucas also said the village had received more complaints about how people were treated while Smith was leading the department. He said the village had received notification from legal representation of Jehovah’s Witnesses alleging that the police department, under Smith’s administration, had harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses and told them to leave. The religious group’s lawyers did not specify an officer’s name or a date when the harassment may have occurred.
“I’ll seek some legal advice on returning a letter to this attorney, saying that will no longer happen,” Lucas said.
Lucas also said Bethesda is aware that the village of Belmont intends to form its own police department. Bethesda’s contract to provide law enforcement will for Belmont will end June 1. Belmont officials have said this is unrelated to Bethesda’s police department issues. Lucas said the departments will have an agreement of mutual aid.
Also, Busack gave an update on the state of the village’s police department. He said he and Thompson have focused on reorganization.
“We haven’t had a lot of patrol due to the fact that we have a lot of office work,” he said.
Among the issues they’ve had to address is creating a system of keeping track of an officer’s keys during shifts and removing the tinting from the front windows of the patrol cars.
“You want to be able to look outwardly and wave to people when they wave back at you, and when you have black windows, which, No. 1, is illegal in the State of Ohio on the front windows, you can’t see in,” he said.
He also said removing the tint will allow better communication with other motorists.
“The entire office, in our opinion, was out of order, and it still to a degree is out of order, and things like that can’t be fixed overnight,” said Busack who also said they were in the process of organizing the evidence room and weapons cabinet.
“I tried to account for all the weapons, tasers and related equipment,” he said. “In the future, we will do a full inventory of the weapons and of the evidence that’s in there.”
Additionally, an activity log will be available for council members to access and see the daily activities of police officers. Busack said no sensitive information would be included.
“Chief Thompson and I will work to restore the trust, confidence and integrity to the citizens of the village of Bethesda and all the surrounding communities,” Busack said.
“I appreciate your efforts,” Lucas said. “I can’t thank you enough for trying to put this back together.”
Also, Lucas announced the current $210 fines for speeding tickets would be reduced. He also said that it is the province of mayor’s court to set fines. A new amount will be determined.
Also, the council will henceforth meet 7:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month and the fourth Thursday.